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Massage Today
November, 2012, Vol. 12, Issue 11

The Power of Touch: A Basic Human Need

By Judi Calvert, LMP

"Countless variations of 'hands-on' therapy have been devised and practiced in every culture we know of, all honoring and elaborating the timeless traditions of primate grooming. The ubiquity, antiquity and variety of these practices can mean only one thing: back-scratching is more than politics. We all need to be touched." - Frank R. Wilson, author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.

The evolution of human touch has progressed from the grooming behaviors of our primate ancestors to the variety of well-developed systems of manual therapies we know today. Yet, at every stop along the time line, our fundamental need for touch has remained critical to our epic story. This account of human touch is not a laundry list of techniques or scientific principles related to anatomy, physiology or pathology; the importance of touch goes beyond time and space, or art and science. Rather, it is about human interaction and human development at its most basic level.

Touch takes place on the canvas of human experience. Healthy, positive touch is intended to help and to heal, and the application of healthy touch takes many forms. Massage, for example, is the structured form of applied touch, administered with purpose and by way of thoughtful techniques based on knowledge. Touch can be an expression of our unique human nature and brings us many benefits. J. Lionel Taylor, author of The Stages of Human Life wrote: "The greatest sense in our body is our touch sense. It is probably the chief sense in the processes of sleeping and waking; it gives us our knowledge of depth or thickness and form; we feel, we love and hate, are touchy and are touched, through the touch corpuscles of our skin."

massage therapy - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Primate grooming behaviors are the origins of healthy touch and I believe that it is both a basic need and an invaluable inheritance derived from our animal origins. Do you believe that humans exhibit both learned and instinctual touch behavior? I do. Touch, as Frank R. Wilson says, is ancient. Primitive man and woman inherited the social structure and function of grooming from their primate relatives. Of course, we have changed them significantly during our evolutionary process. For example, human models of leadership have emerged in place of alliances formed through grooming. But the principle remains the same.

For both species, touch continues to be a crucial element of care giving and the primary way we show love to our young. We know that positive, loving touch is a way to provide a sense of security, and massage therapists of yesterday and today know that touch remains essential to our health and well being. Research and observation shows us that primate grooming behaviors are a central feature of social life. Grooming establishes and maintains a social hierarchy within the community and between family members. It provides a way to give love and comfort, especially to their young. It's even used to apologize for offenses committed against another member of the group as a way to make up and move on. Some of those grooming behaviors include scratching, hugging, holding, slapping, pressing, dabbing, pulling, sucking, rubbing and licking. That behavior is woven into the social fabric of primate life. Grooming is a deeply ingrained behavior - a habit millions of years in use.

Over time, forms of grooming changed as humans evolved. As we began to stand upright, our bodies were no longer so exposed to the sun. Needing less protection from the elements, we lost our protective covering of thick, course hair.

As our skin became more exposed, it became more sensitive. The dexterous, sensitive primate hand evolved into an even more intricate instrument — the human hand. Developments in human hand dexterity and sensitivity, increased intelligence and the advent of language all contributed to more evolved touch behavior. Humans could now apply caring hands to soothe and heal. Eventually, that led to systematic touch techniques.

Though its form and function has changed considerably, the fundamental value of touch remains intact. Touch is a bonding agent, a means of pain relief and perhaps most importantly, a way to say, "I care." The inherent human need for touch has always been a part of our story, and it continues to this day. I give thanks to all the people in this field for helping the world with your healing hands.

Click here for previous articles by Judi Calvert, LMP.


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